Under U.S. Design, Iraq's New Army Looks a Good Deal Like the Old One

An Iraqi soldier stands guard as former troops wait to reenlist in the army outside a military headquarters in the town of Diwaniyah, 100 miles south of Baghdad.
An Iraqi soldier stands guard as former troops wait to reenlist in the army outside a military headquarters in the town of Diwaniyah, 100 miles south of Baghdad. (By Imad Al-khozai -- Reuters)

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By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 21, 2005

TAJI, Iraq, Nov. 20 -- Clad in the olive-green uniform of old, his heart rising to the sound of the lilting march to which he once went to war for President Saddam Hussein, Sgt. Bashar Fathi, a veteran of Iraq's once-elite Republican Guard, watched Iraqi tanks trundle across a parade ground recently -- just as they once swept across the sands of Kuwait.

"This ceremony -- this same music -- it makes us remember the old army," marveled Fathi, standing on the top tier of a reviewing stand south of Baghdad. Next to him was Capt. Khudhair Alwan, whose contact with U.S. forces began by trying to kill them as they invaded the southern city of Basra in 2003.

But this is 2005, not 2003, and this is the new army, not the old one. Fathi and Alwan, switching allegiances if not uniforms, are enlisted man and officer in the new Iraqi army, at the same rank they held in the old one.

The two are at the core of the remaking of Iraq's security forces. The first U.S. administrator of Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, disbanded Hussein's army. But since then, Iraq and the United States have drawn upon Hussein-era soldiers, many of them from the ruling Baath Party, to rebuild Iraq's military. The process was well underway when the Iraqi Defense Ministry called last month for recruits from among junior officers in Hussein's military.

"The vast majority of officers were in the previous army," said Lt. Col. Frederick Wellman, spokesman for the U.S. command overseeing the reformation of Iraq's security forces. "People asked us why we didn't call back the old army," he added. "And the answer is, well, we have."

The Bush administration says that, by the time Bremer's post-invasion administration ended in June 2004, the reconstituted Iraqi army could count more than 80 percent of its officers and the majority of its enlisted men as former members of Hussein's army. The Iraqi Defense Ministry continued open recruiting, including appeals for whole units to reenlist. An August notice in Iraq's state-controlled al-Sabah daily newspaper, for instance, urged members of Hussein's former transport logistics units to sign up for the new army.

The logic of recruiting the old soldiers is this: To withdraw the main might of U.S. troops here, American officials say they must leave behind an Iraqi army capable of fighting the insurgency. The military must be able to defend the country and government against what Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the former top U.S. commander in charge of rebuilding Iraq's army, said would almost certainly be attempts at coups and other civil unrest.

The Hussein-era officers "have the officer training, combat experience and staff and leadership skills to enable them to begin contributing fairly rapidly," Petraeus said by e-mail before leaving Iraq in September.

Bremer's order on May 23, 2003, to disband Hussein's nearly 400,000-strong army is seen by many critics today as one of the gravest miscalculations by the United States in Iraq. Removing all vestige of Iraq's army when there were not enough U.S. troops to fully secure the country left borders open, allowed the insurgency to flourish and encouraged the growth of private militias, the critics say. Jobless and embittered, some troops turned to the insurgency.

U.S. officials insist that Hussein's army effectively disbanded itself -- melting away after Americans invaded -- and that reinstalling the old, Sunni Muslim-dominated military would have been impossible, and unacceptable.

In fact, Iraq's American overseers at first never planned to reassemble much of an Iraqi army. The plan was to field a 40,000-man army, one-tenth the size of the old one, only by 2006. Iraqi troops would concentrate on tasks such as disarming land mines while U.S. troops handled the fledgling insurgency, then-senior U.S. military adviser Walter Slocombe said in June 2003.

At Kirkush, an Iraqi military training base near the Iranian border, Maj. Muhammed Ghalib, a veteran of the old army, paused and searched for the right words when asked by a reporter to describe the first stage of remaking the army. "Chaos," Ghalib, 20, finally said. "It was chaos at the beginning."


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